What’s to be done about Northern trains? – HADRAG’s annual meeting in Sowerby Bridge

 

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When will we see modern, non-polluting trains like on the Calder Valley Line? Four campaigning rail user groups launched the Electric Railway Charter in Halifax in May. The launch event was addressed by Holly Lynch (MP for Halifax), Nina Smith (Chair of Railfuture Yorkshire Branch), Anthony Rae (Chair of Yorkshire & Humberside Transport Activists Round Table), and Richard Lysons (Chair of Friends of Littleborough Station). The call is for a rolling programme of electrification across the North, based on the “Northern Sparks” task force report which made recommendations to the governments more than three years ago. Top-ranked recommendation was, of course, electrification of the Calder Valley Line.

HADRAG holds its annual meeting in Sowerby Bridge on Saturday morning, 2 June at the end of what seems to be the most chaotic first fortnight of a new train timetable that anyone can remember. The meeting, at St Paul’s Church centre, Tower Hill, Sowerby Bridge HX6 2EQ from 10am, is open to all Calder Valley Line rail users to make their views known. Invited guest speaker is Adam Timewell, commercial franchise manager at the Rail North Partnership. The Partnership involves North of England transport bodies and the Department for Transport. Adam has a key role in overseeing the Northern trains franchise operated by Arriva and will be expecting to field a variety of questions about the present state of Northern trains and how we move forward towards a real alternative that offers not just the promised new destinations but also a well-designed and reliable service for local users, attractive to the whole community. The meeting on Saturday at St Paul’s is doors open 10.00 (light refreshments); speeches from 10.20 and discussion until 11.45, followed by business meeting to finish at 12.30.  READ on for more on our concerns:

HADRAG is concerned about Sowerby Bridge and the Brighouse corridor. The new timetable (even when it’s working properly) has lost the easy connections we used to have from upper Calderdale to Huddersfield, and we can see people who used to change trains at Brighouse leaving the station and getting on the bus instead. There are also still questions about future service patterns and exactly which trains will stop and Sowerby bridge and Mytholmroyd from 2019. From this month Brighouse itself sees an effectively reduced service to Leeds with the slow train via Bradford overtaken in both directions by the direct service via Dewsbury – surely a mockery of the specified 2 trains/hour pattern. HADRAG wants to see a commitment from the railway to provide more trains over the Brighouse corridor, particularly important when we get Elland station open.

In January the Arriva-owned Northern train operator announced that it would be forced to defer some of its May 2018 enhancements. This was because delays to electrification on the Bolton line would result in a shortage of diesel trains. (Commuters forced to endure sardine-can conditions already knew there was a shortage of carriages.) It is not clear why it only became clear in January that certain works would not be completed for May. Plans were eventually announced in April: service extensions to Manchester Airport and Chester deferred, and the popular Blackpool-York service temporarily cut back to Preston-Leeds, a big disappointment. But at least we were expecting a timetable that would work. Sadly this was over-optimistic; now it seems driver shortages are leading to delays and cancelations that are worse than anything that any of can remember for a timetable change.

Back in February we had serious concerns about what we’d seen online about the May timetable. Promised trains to Manchester Airport and Chester sounded great, but it looked like Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd could be missing Sunday trains to Manchester, some important peak services seemed to be missing and there was a serious issue about “clockface” patterns. The good news was that the April announcement, despite the deferred enhancements, suggested that concerns had been at least partly addressed. Which didn’t prepare us for the collapse of reliability and punctuality when the new times actually came in. It is hoped some of the promised enhancements and reinstatement of Blackpool-York will be made by the end of this year when more trains cold be available. We shall be pressing Northern to introduce the new destinations without doing further damage to existing local connectivity. Much more urgently however, we are looking for an action plan to be implemented in the coming days and weeks to get the present timetable running properly.

Here (dated 30 May and updated from our Spring newsletter) is HADRAG’s review of the May 2018 changes – based on what they are supposed to be running not the chaos that’s been happening over recent days:

Peak commuter services. With a major recast a lot of times have changed. A relief for Calderdale-Leeds users is that the extra Halifax-Leeds train operated by a 5-car Grand Central unit not only continues to run but will start back from Hebden Bridge at 0702.  And it will have a return working at teatime. The latter in particular means additional capacity. But it is difficult to be optimistic about further early relief for overcrowding at least until the new trains are in full service by the end of next year.

Blackpool-York trains are temporarily cut back to Preston-Leeds, with connections at Preston, but will run through on Sundays. You can see the logic given a shortage of diesel trains and the Blackpool line now electrified; but this is still very unwelcome. Some other CVL trains will be linked through to/from York or Selby in compensation for existing Calderdale cross-Leeds users. With the Airport and Chester services deferred, it’s odd that extension of Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester trains to Southport has gone ahead, increasing frequency on the Manchester-Atherton-Wigan line. Calderdale’s loss is Atherton’s gain? Southport is surely the least useful of our new destinations. Southport and Wigan people would really rather have trains to Manchester Airport. Wouldn’t we all?! Northern have said they will restore Blackpool-York as soon as trains become available. It is expected that the service will then become fast Leeds-York, which sounds like good news.

Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd do, thankfully, keep their hourly Sunday service to Manchester, and in addition have all Blackpool/Preston-Leeds/York stopping — good news we’ve been waiting for, except that there is now going to be a wait for most of these trains actually to run through to York and Blackpool!  (They do go through on Sundays.) But Mytholmroyd is not shown in Northern’s online pdf York-Blackpool timetable. We shall see if it’s in the eventual printed version. At time of writing online timetables were still showing a 2-hour late evening gap in trains back from Manchester to these stations, despite two services running through non-stop in between. We raised this with Northern in late April and it sounded like a genuine error the train planners could fix. We are waiting.

Upper Calderdale connectivity to Huddersfield is damaged. So if you are travelling from say Mytholmroyd or Sowerby Bridge you can no longer get off at Brighouse and board a closely following train to Huddersfield. Worse, the trains that stop at MYT and SOW do not connect with the Huddersfield trains at Halifax. Journey planner recommends going travelling to Dewsbury and then doubling back at an inflated fare with no cheap returns available. Ridiculous. The situation is slightly better for Todmorden/Hebden Bridge-Huddersfield as the fast trains that stop there connect with the Brighouse/Huddersfield trains at Halifax.

Clockface patterns are far from ideal. Just as an example, Halifax towards Leeds is now roughly 00, 12, 34, 43, deviating significantly from even-interval. Annoying variations between hours could make people miss trains. Some journey times increase. Eastbound Preston-Leeds trains call at Bramley, whilst Huddersfield-Hfx-Leeds trains are non-stop from New Pudsey. Overall verdict: rather messy.

Brighouse Line. More clockface and journey time issues. Leeds-Brighouse-Manchesters are fast Rochdale-Manchester, a gain partly lost by extra time westbound Brighouse-Sowerby Bridge. Would it not be better to hold them in Brighouse station, rather than have the trains waiting for signals at Milner Royd? Issues like this should be helped when new signalling is commissioned. The Leeds-Brighouse direct trains overtake the ones via Bradford in both directions. This makes a mockery of the franchise Train Service Requirement of 2 trains/hour Brighouse-Leeds. If you just miss the direct train (or it’s cancelled) you might as well wait for the next one a full hour later rather than get on one that is overtaken. With “pathing” time approaching Huddersfield—which actually means waiting at the signals at Bradley Junction—Brighouse-Huddersfield now typically takes 14 minutes. Surely some better solution to both of these problems can be devised? Leeds-Brighouse-Manchester will be running later in the evening, but not yet on Sundays: we shall keep pressing for that. Sundays Leeds-Halifax-Brighouse is more or less hourly, a promise delivered, though with irritating variations (dodgy clockface again).

Three Northern booklets (8, 36 and 45) are still required to show the whole CVL service—somewhat unsatisfactorily. We understand there is a plan to improve the booklets. Dare we hope for a clear, well presented Calder Valley line booklet showing all services when Northern Connect branded services are introduced in December 2019? This is clearly something that Northern find difficult, but remember West Yorkshire “Metro” produced complete line timetables right through from the 1970s to a year or so ago. Why can’t Northern  under Arriva replicate what the county body used to do?

December 2019 will be another major change with an extra service each hour Bradford-Manchester and through trains to Liverpool as well as Man Airport and Chester. We say this should be an opportunity to deliver a better clockface pattern,  and serve more local stations with the Airport trains. Enhancements must surely be brought in without damaging the service at local stations. Sowerby Bridge, Brighouse and the future Elland station deserve a much better train service.  —JSW

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